Adam Katz on Disciplinary Spaces, our Post-Ritual Mode of Living.

A definition of discipline: 

A discipline is a space of shared attention, considered as a space of inquiry.  We can thus distinguish it from the moral, ritual and esthetic modes of shared attention—those that Eric Gans has rooted in the originary scene.

Morality enforces the equality of all in dividing the object.  Ritual enacts and commemorates the originary scene.  Esthetics involves the oscillation between the sign and object which, interestingly, seems to refer to something other on the scene, rather than the “signifier,” would be doing (in other words, the one putting forth the sign is not producing the oscillation).

In each case, we could, and, indeed, would have to, invoke “intuition” or tacit knowing to account for how “equality” is determined, fidelity to the scene established, and equipoise between sign and object maintained.  At a certain point, in other words, we would have to say that all the participants on the scene know that they have all deferred appropriation because they know, and such knowledge can only be acquired “emically,” by what Michael Polanyi calls “indwelling” within the scene.

Why disciplinary spaces emerge: 

The potential for disarray, though, inheres in every perceived discrepancy between sign and practice, and every practice must evince some discrepancy with the sign hallowing it.  Within every scene, then, one could imagine the emergence of disagreements over the equality of portions, the conformity of ritual to the scene it iterates or, once esthetic intention becomes deliberate, how to make the sign an ever more compelling model of desire and its suspension.

In such cases, or, better, from that aspect, inquiry enters into the equation. By inquiry, to use and extend Michael Polanyi’s terms, I mean the direction of attention to something we have been attending from.  One has already, or already begun to, claim a portion, take up a role in the ritual, or give shape to a sign; feedback from others on the scene suggests an extension or curtailment of that claim, a clarification of some gesture pertinent to the role, a sharpening of the sign in some respect, is called for.

This leads one to recursively review some tacit element in one’s act—to (using Eric Gans’s term, in The Origin of Language, describing the extension of the ostensive gesture to non-sacred objects among the earliest humans) “lower the threshold of significance.”  Such a review measures the distance between the act carried out and one to be carried out in greater obedience to the object.  The answer, then, is to be found in directing attention to some previously unconsidered mode of appearance of the object, which in turn implies the inexhaustibility of the object and its resistance to desire.

Inquiry enables deferral by assuming a reality irreducible to desire—there is always more to see, and new ways of seeing, and therefore new ways of restructuring one’s actions so as to make the object accessible in new ways.  Scaffolded over ritual, moral and esthetic actions, then, is at least a minimal study of those actions—a disciplinary space.

Disciplinary spaces exist to respond to disruption and pursue reform, a return to harmony: 

Desire is disruptive insofar as it creates asymmetry in any community; the means for restoring symmetry must lie both within and outside of the community; and the restoration of symmetry must re-name and assimilate the originally disruptive desire—and all this must be represented in a way intelligible to the community but also to some extent abstractly, insofar as the ritual must adumbrate its future narrative renderings and elaborations.

The citizenal equality and dynamics of a discipline: 

Disciplines cannot survive without a rigorously applied egalitarian morality: anyone within the discipline can be heard as long as they follow the (often tacit) procedures of the discipline.  By the same token, no attention at all need be paid to anyone outside of the discipline, or, for that matter, to any question or observation incommensurable with the discipline.

The most urgent question for any discipline, then, is how to determine who belongs inside.  As with tribal or cult membership, inclusion must ultimately involve a personal dimension: even with our vast educational apparatuses and impersonal credentialing mechanisms, someone, and usually at least several someones, who are already recognized members of the discipline, need to know you and your work and to vouch for you.

And what needs to be known about you is analogous in each case: you know how to and are willing to play by the rules.  I hope that it is clear that I am not being critical here; rather, I am asserting that it must be this way.  The equal division of the object on the originary scene would be a negotiated solution—strength, aggressiveness, assumptions of merit, and other forces of inequality will, we can assume, be operative up until the point that those asserting those privileges do not so add to the cumulative resentments of the community as to render the originary sign null and void.

But, how could one know when that point is being approached?  Even for those within the community, it will be at best a question of educated guesses and trial and error—but for outsiders, negotiating this terrain would be impossible without extensive training, which is to say without them becoming insiders.  (The process of making outsiders insiders, that is, pedagogy, is itself the object of a disciplinary space.)

Similarly, the rules of even the most objective scientific discipline—rules about how to carry out and formalize procedures, what counts as a violation of procedure, meta-rules regarding which violations can be repatriated within the discipline, etc., are a question of further inquiry that both presupposes and revises the rough equality of the discipline.

Disciplinary spaces are generated out of attentional space: 

Michael Polanyi, upon whose understanding I have been drawing, sees inquiry as a concerted convergence of attention on the articulation of the particulars of a field (from the particulars to their articulation) of reality in ways that direct our attention to additional articulable particulars.  Such collaborative spaces rely on the authority of previous and neighboring inquiries, and draw upon the contributions of individual inquirers, each of whom, in his/her very attempt to articulate the particulars thereby presupposes the existence of a broader, unseen, largely intuited reality.

These inquiries rely upon the “principle of mutual control” to sustain the shared attention comprising the discipline.  In this way, an acceptance of authority and a restricted, even minute, field in which one makes responsible choices is combined with an intimation of a hierarchical and open-ended whole in which all the overlapping disciplines participate.  While focusing on the natural scientists, Polanyi suggests that all fields of inquiry, including moral and esthetic, are governed in their internal and external interactions by the same logic.  Polanyi calls a free and open social order predicated upon these disciplines a “society of explorers.

While Polanyi does not push his argument this far, I will now go on to argue that Polanyi’s society of explorers can encompass society as such—there are nothing but disciplines (a family constitutes a—or several—disciplinary spaces, as does a friendship, even a single meeting between strangers, and so on), and if all of these disciplines do not recognize each other, that is because they have not yet (and maybe never will be) brought into a relation of mutual control with each other.


A criminal gang, to a certain extent, can be a discipline—figuring out how to rob a bank or claim the turf of a rival gang certainly involves a kind of inquiry (this is why movies and other forms of entertainment are able to engage our sympathies on the side of criminals).  But only to a certain extent—the discipline cannot be an open one, which is to say it cannot submit itself to mutual control with other disciplines. Since it is predicated upon subversion of other disciplines, it must therefore conceal itself, and it must therefore privilege the loyalty of its members over their commitment to the inquiry; in privileging loyalty, the criminal gang is necessarily hierarchical, since someone must enforce loyalty and the loyalty of all to that enforcer must exceed his towards any of them.

The dialectic between bureaucracy and discipline: 

Accountability can generate more disciplinary spaces, but insofar as these means of normalization involve the collusion between established disciplinary spaces to interfere with emergent disciplinary spaces, the extrinsic readily supplants the intrinsic: procedures of approval through the application of established categories replace exploration of the possibilities of founding concepts, and issuing credentials substitutes for the ongoing, interested judgment of participants’ contributions.

Struggles can then be waged over the revision of categories and the updating of credentials. Each disciplinary space tends to re-organize itself on the model of others upon which it is dependent, to that extent replacing inquiry with prefabricated criteria.  Disciplines, then, in order to survive, must become spaces carved out of and in resistance to the very bureaucracies they have secreted.

What has been refused bureaucratically is the reciprocity with other disciplines, which really means the desire for and encouragement of disciplinary spaces to complement and join one’s own and hence the narrowing rather than expansion of reality.


Bureaucracy is the study of the means of ensuring the impermeability of the disciplinary space, of making sure that what is discovered is intelligible in terms of what is already known, but that itself may only be known from within another disciplinary space that through its own bureaucratization mistakes a harnessing of resources to sustain a beleaguered truth for dogmatism and paranoia.

It is only through the creation of new disciplinary spaces that the distinction between discipline and bureaucracy can be determined.

Bureaucracy seeks formal closure: 

The bureaucratic mind wishes to be on an abstracted scene that the sign has always already completely mapped, down to the least possible gesture.  What an originary account can add to those Heidegger and McLuhan is the location of “bureaucracy” on the originary scene, where the reciprocal “calibration” of their respective signings on the part of the scene’s participants involves a potentially total mapping of possible responses and respective mappings of self and others.

The approach to that totality in the originary event closes the scene while leaving sufficient margin for error to notice further residues of representable desire.  Bureaucracy seeks to eliminate that margin of error by ensuring the recipient fits the delivery and designing the delivery to match the prepared recipient.

Logocentrism, represented as a disciplinary space, becomes a bureaucratic tyranny in scientism and liberalism: 

David R. Olson: “Once a writing system has a syntax, the emblems or tokens can now be seen as words rather than as emblems and the constructions can be seen as a proposition rather than a list.  The structures present in the script now provide the categories needed for introspecting the implicit structures of language.  Such scripts are logographic in that the tokens now represent the major grammatical constituents of the language, namely, words.

But, to repeat, it does not follow that the inventors of such a script already knew about words and then sought to represent them in the script.  The opposite may be true.  The scribal inventions dictated a kind of reading which allowed language to be seen as composed of words related by means of a syntax.  Writing thereby provides the model for the production of speech (in reading) and for the introspective awareness of speech as composed of grammatical constituents, namely, words.” (77, The World on Paper)

While the “invention” of the declarative sentence certainly precedes that of writing by many millennia, it is with the invention of writing that the declarative sentence can be singled out as such and treated as the primary linguistic form, the model for language as such.  So, the development of alphabetic writing coincided with the development of metaphysics in Greece and monotheism in Israel—both are new modes of intelligibility predicated upon the primacy of the declarative sentence.

As Olson points out, the understanding that words represent meanings rather than being embodied in the things they refer to “spells the death of ‘word’ magic or more precisely, ‘name’ magic”.  It now becomes possible to argue about what “good” or “God” “really means”—it has some stable meaning, insofar as its permanence is evident in its written form, but it has no obvious or direct connection to any particular meaning.


What is specific to the declarative sentence is the constitutive claim that words match reality in some way that anyone who hears the sentence could identify (and assess).  In that case, the ideal declarative sentence is one that could be uttered felicitously by anyone, anywhere, at any time.  And this is indeed the ideal for Western metaphysics and, however differently, Judaic monotheism, the name of whose God is, essentially, I am everywhere, always and no one (although it’s worth noting that the ideal sentence is simultaneously and paradoxically cancelled in the Jewish name of God, since no one could in fact felicitously say it without claiming to be that God).

The critique of Western metaphysics, shadowing it from the beginning, but becoming increasingly powerful over the past century and a half, can, then, be distilled into the following argument: Western metaphysics, in privileging collective intentionality as crystallized in the ideal declarative sentence, has elided the fact that joint intentionally persists within and, indeed, continues to constitute, collective intentionality.

Metaphysics, in answering the needs of emergent empires consequent upon its creation of a novel and enduring disciplinary space, thereby produces a meta-bureaucracy, predicated upon the imagination of a single world scene of which all other scenes are components.

The bureaucratized declarative strives to eliminate paradox from language, to make every sentence “clear,” which is to say, refer to a reality that all readers (participants in an imagined collective intentionality) of the sentence would realize as that reality and as decomposable into equally discreet and unanimously recognized parts.

Disciplinary idioms are no less invested in the declarative sentence, but work to draw out the generative paradoxicality of any sentence, its constitutive character for those jointly attending to the boundary between the possible realities deferred by the sentence and the reality it presents.

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